Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Killer First Sentences -- June 3, 2009

First sentences are hard. Agents and editors give all kinds of conflicting advice on panels and in workshops, on their websites or in books. One says a novel should never open with dialogue. Another says she loves a book to jump into dialogue from the get-go. A writing manual tells us the first sentence should be the hook. An agent insists we should never open a book with the weather. In a conference workshop, a well-known editor advises writers that the opening sentence should never be in the form, "Blank did blank."

What's an author to do?

Since I have lots and lots of books around my house, I decided to look at the first page of random books and pick five that had killer first sentences (that's killer first sentences from my point of view, of course). Here are the ones I selected this time around:

"Several miles into his journey, Jack St. Bride decided to give up his former life." .....Jodi Picoult, Salem Falls (2001)

"When all is said and done, killing my mother came easily." .....Alice Sebold, The Almost Moon (2007)

"Call me Snake." .....Marilyn Victor and Michael Allan Mallory, Death Roll (2007)

"Three days before her death, my mother told me--these weren't her last words, but they were pretty close--that my brother was still alive." .....Harlan Coben, Gone for Good (2002)

"When this nameless piece a' shit tore off Linda Lobo's G-string instead of sticking money in it like he was supposed to, Texas Jack Carmine went crazy-over-the-edge and hit him with a pool cue." .....Robert James Waller, Border Music (1993)

Killer first sentences will be a blog topic from time to time, which is why I put the date in the title. Let me know if you have an all-time favorite, or one that caught your attention recently. Can a great first sentence convince you to buy a book (or check it out of the library)?


Lynnette Labelle said...

That's a neat idea. I'll have to start paying closer attention to the first sentences in the books I buy.

Lynnette Labelle

Marybeth Poppins said...

I am going to have to do one of these posts myself. I love hearing the first sentences of books! I have to admit a couple of them grabbed my attention.

Thanks for popping by my blog. I didn't see a link to your crit group though. Feel free to email me the link.

Anonymous said...

I ALWAYS read the first sentence -- and then the rest of the first page -- before buying or checking out a book. Reading the back cover just doesn't do it for me! My attention span is so short that I know if I don't like the first page, I'll never continue.

I need to keep reminding myself about this as I write my own book! Lots of pressure for a solid first page.

Galen Kindley said...

I’m a more macro guy--or, more likely, not dialed into the important stuff. Until you mentioned it, the first sentence was simply part of the first paragraph. Nothing more than a component of, ‘The Hook.” So, for me, the bigger question of what follows the first sentence is more my discriminator. Now, however, I’ll pay more attention to sentence one.

For fun, I checked my first page, first sentences. They are...

Book One: Despite its twenty years, his sole remaining photograph had aged gracefully.

Book Two: The late November storm attacked the Cascade Mountains with little warning and no mercy.

Yikes!!! One’s boring, the other deals with, gulp, the weather. Sigh.

Best Regards, Galen.

Elle Parker said...

You know - I'm just not one who is all that swayed by first sentences. I'm not overly swayed by first impressions either, because my first impressions always turn out to be so different from what I eventually come to know.

Elle Parker

Patricia Stoltey said...

Although finding killer first sentences is a fun exercise I'll use in my blogs from time to time, we all know the first sentence does not make a great book, that millions of excellent novels begin with the weather or dialogue, and sentences that might appear boring at first glance often contain elements critical to the rest of the story. I look at first sentences for fun, but I pick books by the author, the genre, the story synopsis, or a friend's recommendation.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Oh, I absolutely am swayed by a good first sentence. But I read quickly, so the first few pages should be equally good.

I'm embarrassed to say a good cover also grabs my attention; I know that's ridiculous, but it does.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Karen Walker said...

This is one of my favorite posts, as I am a first sentence kinda gal. Loved the ones you posted here, Patricia. Makes me want to read the books,which is the whole idea. But I won't let a fair to midlin' first sentence stop me from reading on. I'll give a book 50 or so pages before I put it down.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I am fascinated by clever first sentences and enjoyed your examples. And, yes, sometimes they do convince me to buy the book.

Jane Kennedy Sutton

The Practical Preserver said...

Call me Snake; Call me Ishmael. Hmmm. I agree, Patricia. That first sentence can take longer than the rest of the book. Bucking the trend, as usual, I enjoy descriptive openings.

N A Sharpe said...

I love Alice Sebold's first sentence! I've always heard you need to hook them in the beginning and those are some pretty good examples. I also heard that chapter three should end with a good "cliffhanger" to make yuou want to read more since A)publishers usually ask for three chapters for a submission and B) if you aren't hooked by then there's a good chance you won't be as interested in finishing the book.

Great post. Lots to think about here. go check my opening sentence in my WIP, lol.

Nancy, from Just a Thought…